Can't we all get special treatment?

Heads are lining up for specialist status, but room at the top is squeezed. Phil Revell reports

MANY secondary headteachers have returned from holiday with the same ambition: to gain specialist school status.

From this month there will be 992 specialist secondaries in England, just under one in three of the total. But it is easy to see why even more heads are now dusting off old bids or contemplating new ones. Ministers envisage a ladder of schools, with advanced specialists at the top and failing schools at the bottom. And Education Secretary Estelle Morris has said she would like to see all secondary schools apply for specialist status.

The Government will easily reach its target of 1,000 specialist schools by 2003. But it now has a new target of 2,000 (out of 3,165 schools) by 2006. That goal may also be reached easily because heads' leaders foresee a stampede for specialist status by schools that do not want to be left at the bottom of the ladder. "The hierarchy leaves more than 1,000 schools outside the system," said John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.

Some of these schools are failing or have serious weaknesses. But that only accounts for around 300 of the 1,000. Inspectors gave Terry Hunt's Shropshire school a sound report last year, but he has been turned down for specialist status once and is concerned that if the governors put in another bid he may miss the cut again.

"We're a small rural school with a deficit budget," said Mr Hunt, head of Bishops Castle community college. "We may not match the criteria they are looking for."

The concern is that the Government will focus on bids from urban schools. But heads also question the whole rationale of the specialist schools policy.

"The core of the policy is fundamentally mistaken," said John Dunford. "Many heads do not want to focus on one subject area."

From September, Whalley Range high, a 1,600-pupil girls' school on Manchester's tough, southern outskirts, will re-open as one of 18 new business and enterprise colleges. Under Dame Jean Else's leadership the school has been transformed and we can safely assume that one of its former pupils, Estelle Morris, has been trying to persuade Ms Else to apply for specialist status for some time.

"I've not been attracted by the specialist schools initiative until now," Dame Jean said. "But this new business and enterprise category suited our nature, because we have been entrepreneurial in everything we have done."

SHA has pressed repeatedly for the eligible categories of specialism to include community schools, but the Department for Education and Skills has rejected the idea, arguing that "community" is too difficult to define and that it would not be possible to set targets for specific curriculum areas.

That is a disappointment for Terry Hunt. Bishops Castle community college has a leisure centre and a flourishing adult education programme. "If community status was possible I'd go for it like a shot," said Mr Hunt. "As it is we shall probably try for arts status."

Other schools have avoided applying because they see the policy as unfair and divisive. "It sets school against school," said one head. "And the idea that specialist schools work with their neighbours to raise standards is a nonsense."

This outreach role was described as the "weakest part of their work" in an otherwise positive OFSTED report on specialist schools last year. A National Foundation for Educational Research report published in February also challenged the view that specialist schools raise standards in neighbouring secondaries. Non-specialist schools were found to achieve lower GCSE scores when there were specialist secondaries in their area.

The funding disparities are even more glaring. A 1,000-pupil specialist school receives at least pound;123,000 a year more than its non-specialist neighbour. And as John Dunford said: "What is often forgotten is the effect of the cumulative advantage" (see box, right).

But the DFES has little comfort for schools that miss out. The 2002-6 spending plans show that funding is not available to expand the programme to include all English schools, even if that is what Estelle Morris wants. About 700 heads in perfectly good schools are going to have to get used to being at the bottom of the education hierarchy for at least the next four years.

phil.revell@ukonline.co.uk

REASONS TO BE SPECIALIST

What a 1,000-pupil school gains from specialist status:

Year 1

pound;100,000 capital grant plus pound;123 per pupil = pound;223,000

Year 2

pound;123 per pupil = pound;123,000

Year 3

pound;123 per pupil = pound;123,000

Year 4

pound;123 per pupil = pound;123,000

Total = pound;592,000

After four years a school must be reassessed for specialist status

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